Saturday, April 25, 2009

Church History Lesson 13 (The New Testament Writings)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

Church History Lesson 1 (Introduction)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 2)
Church History Lesson 3 (The Start of The Church)
Church History Lesson 4 (The Life of Jesus)
Church History Lesson 5 (The New Community)
Church History Lesson 6 (The Church at Antioch)
Church History Lesson 7 (The First Council)
Church History Lesson 8 (Paul's Second Missionary Journey)
Church History Lesson 9 (The End of the Apostolic Age)
Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60s!)
Church History Lesson 11 (The Next 200 Years)
Church History Lesson 12 (Worship in the Early Church)

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

The New Testament Writings

There was an interesting issue that troubled early Christianity: the question of sin after baptism. This was a very difficult subject. The source of the problem can be traced to a passage in Hebrews:
26If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:26-27)
We would tend to paraphrase this passage like this: For those who heard the gospel and continue to sin without repentance, completely alienating themselves from the church, where can they turn? There is no sacrifice remaining that will result in forgiveness.

But by some in the early church this passage was interpreted to mean that there was little hope for forgiveness of post-baptismal sin. (So difficult was this passage, that some denied the authority of Hebrews for lack of a satisfactory explanation--for to accept that there is no forgiveness after baptism was too difficult a yoke to bear.)

This was one of the reasons some of the church fathers (Tertullian, in particular) supported adult baptism: once baptized there was no turning back. In order to fit their severe view of post-baptismal sin, it was taught that it was possible for man to live a post-baptismal sinless life.

To see how seriously this was taken, let us look at the appearance of a milder view, which is found in the allegorical The Shepherd of Hermas by a Roman writer, sometime early in the second century. This work was a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress for the early Christians and was widely distributed among the churches. Addressing post-baptismal sin, you read in The Shepherd:
1[29]:7 "If then, Sir," say I, "after the wife is divorced, she repent and desire to return to her own husband, shall she not be received?"

1[29]:8 "Certainly," saith he, "if the husband receiveth her not, he sinneth and bringeth great sin upon himself; nay, one who hath sinned and repented must be received, yet not often; for there is but one repentance for the servants of God. For the sake of her repentance therefore the husband ought not to marry. This is the manner of acting enjoined on husband and wife.
In other words, the radical new idea was that believers could be forgiven for post-baptismal sin, but just once! Tertullian, for his part, refers to Hermas’s work as "The Shepherd of the Adulterers".

After some time, necessary expedients were developed. Of course, not all sin was equally heinous, and some sin was mild enough that confession and repentance sufficed for complete restoration. However, the big three, that is the three major sins in Judaism: murder, perjury, and adultery, were excommunicable, as was apostasy -–which is self-excommunication at any rate. So a new issue arose concerning whether one who was excommunicated could ever be restored.

A serious dispute arose in Rome over this question in the early part of the third century. Callistus, Bishop of Rome (Pope Callistus I) from 217 to 222, ruled that the sincerely repentant may be readmitted even after adultery or fornication. Tertullian was outraged and responded with venom from across the Mediterranean at what he viewed as a “peremptory edict” issued from “the Bishop of Bishops” (intended sarcastically.)

There was also serious opposition from within Rome, and it lead to an early schism. Hippolytus, considered by some to be the greatest scholar in the Western world of his time, complained of Callistus’s “criminal laxity.” Then, with his followers, he withdrew from fellowship and established a rival Roman church, giving him the distinction of being the first antipope (a false claimant to the papacy) in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. A great scholar, yes. A great theologian, no. Callitus’s psotion more accurately reflected the gospel. The schism was short lived. Hippolytus was banished to Sardinia in A.D. 235, during a period of persecution, along with Callistus’s successor, Pontainus (Pope St. Pontian). The rival popes were reconciled before their martyrdom, and Hippolytus is now a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

A little later, during the persecution under Decius (249-251) you might recall that many believers renounced their faith, unable to persevere when faced with the prospect of torture and death. Another debate arose concerning whether they could be restored. To some, who conveniently forgot the example of Peter himself, those who lapsed were analogous to traitors to an army, and reconciliation was impossible. To more reasoned others, a distinction was sought to differentiate between those who took active measures to renounce their faith and those who recanted under torture. Dionysius, Bishop of Rome (Pope St. Dionysius) was of the moderate (and, in this case, correct) camp who argued against those who said that restoration was impossible, calling them “those who slander our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.” Once again, controversy led to schism. This time the antipope was a man by the name of Novatian. Novatian, c.200-c.258, was a Roman theologian and the first writer of the Western church to use Latin. He had himself consecrated bishop of Rome in 251 in opposition to Pope Cornelius, believing, as mentioned, that Cornelius was too lenient toward those who had apostatized during the Decian persecution and had then sought readmission. Novatian was excommunicated, but his followers formed a schismatic church that persisted for several centuries. Novatian himself was probably martyred in the persecution of Valerian.

The New Testament Writings

Some would like to couch a portion of the dispute between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church in this way: The former believes that Jesus rose from the dead because he reads it in the New Testament, while the latter believes it because the Church says it is true. In fact, that’s a distinction without a difference (which is not to say there is not considerable differences between Protestants and Catholics to be found elsewhere.) Both the New Testament (the scriptures) and the church are a consequence of Christ’s resurrection. The New Testament did not create the church, nor the church the New Testament. As some have put it: the two grew up together.

Throughout the first Christian century, the apostles’ writings were conveyed both orally and in writing. This was true from the earliest days of the Church. When Paul was at Ephesus, he heard of problems in the church at Corinth, and he immediately dispatched an epistle. Later, in Corinth, he sent a letter outlining the essentials of Christian theology to the church at Rome. By about A.D. 60, there were several letters from Paul and other apostles in the hands of various churches and individuals.

The need for a written account became acute when the apostles advanced in age, for it was clear that at some point they, the eyewitnesses, would not be around. The Roman church asked Mark to write down the message that Peter had delivered to them. At an earlier time, written collections of the sayings of Christ took shape. Shortly after Mark’s account was written down, Luke penned his two part history of Christianity, the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. Then in the Syrian region, another gospel appeared: the gospel of Matthew. Later in the century, at Ephesus, the gospel of John, the last surviving apostle, appears.

As long as these documents were scattered about, there was in no sense a New Testament. Not that the documents were not accepted as authoritative, for they certainly were, as were Paul’s correspondence, even though (for example in Corinth) there was some questioning of Paul’s apostolic authority. Paul himself wrote:
If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. (1 Cor. 14:37)

Here we see that Paul is affirming the absolute authority of what he is writing.

What was lacking, in this early period, was a canon, or an officially recognized list of sacred writings. Now an example of such a thing did exist: the Old Testament. What was needed was a similar compendium of apostolic writings.

Toward the end of the first century, a movement developed to collect the writings of Paul, which consisted entirely of letters. The motivation for the movement is uncertain, but some have speculated that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles became widely known and extremely popular around the year 90, and this sparked interest in Paul. It is know that about this time various churches began searching their records and archives for Pauline correspondence.

By about the year 95, the “Vatican Library” of the time held Paul’s letter to the Romans, his first epistle to the Corinthians and possibly one or two others letters of Paul. It also contained the letter to the Hebrews, and First Peter, some of the gospels, and the Greek version of the New Testament (the Septuagint).

An incontrovertible piece of evidence is the letter written to the Corinthian church in A.D. 95 by the bishop of Rome (Pope) Clement, in which he wrote:
Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What wrote he first unto you in the beginning of the Gospel? Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas [Peter] and Apollos, because that even then ye had made parties. (1 Clement, 47)

So without question Clement had access to Paul’s first Corinthian epistle. Since he nowhere quoted Paul’s second letter in his own correspondence to the Corinthians, even though parts are apropos to what he writing, it is concluded that Rome did not have a copy of that correspondence.

So the effort to collect Paul’s writings continued, and by the end of the first century, it is evident that there existed a Pauline corpus that was in the hands of various churches. At first it contained ten letters, but shortly thereafter the three pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) were added.

At the same time, another collection began to circulate among the churches: the four gospels. From the beginning of the second century, the Catholic Church used these and only these gospels, even though the occasional gospel of someone-else appeared.

So in the early years of the second century there were two books in circulation: The Gospels, with contents According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and The Pauline Corpus, with subheadings To the Romans, First Letter to the Corinthians, etc.

The church was making admirable progress in establishing a canon. And then something happened to expedite the process.


Marcion was son of the Bishop of Sinope in Pontus (Asia Minor), born c. A.D. 110, evidently from wealthy parents. Around the year A.D. 140 he traveled to Rome and presented his peculiar teachings to the elders. They found his ideas unacceptable, to say the least. Marcion’s response was to leave the church and form his own heretical sect.

Marcion’s heresy anticipates some that will follow, and we will have more to say about it next week. For now, we note that Marcion (1) denied the authority of the entirety of the Old Testament and (2) denied the authority of all the apostles except Paul, because only Paul (according to Marcion) did not allow his faith to be defiled by mixing it with Judaism. Only Paul had not apostatized from the teachings of Jesus.

Marcion was perhaps the first to claim that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. Jesus’ many appeals to the Old Testament notwithstanding, Marcion believed that Jesus Himself placed no authority in the Old Testament and had come to liberate man from the bondage to the Old Testament God.

Jesus, according to Marcion, was not the son of the God of the Old Testament, but the son of the superior God of goodness and mercy of the New Testament whom Marcion called the Father.

The sacred writings (including Paul’s letters), Marcion taught, had been corrupted by Judiazers if not directly by the Jewish sympathies of the apostles (excluding Paul). All scripture was in need of a cleansing under Marcion’s direction.

So Marcion deleted the Old Testament, and developed his own canon consisting of two parts: The Gospel, a sanitized version of Luke’s gospel, and The Apostle, a similarly sanitized version of Paul’s first ten letters. Marcion’s canon provided the impetus for the Church to redouble her efforts to establish a proper canon of her own. Immediately there was anti-Marcion pronouncements that voiced support for the Catholic writings, but still, those writings were not officially delimited into a collection of sacred scriptures.

On the other hand, the situation was not hopelessly muddled, not by a long shot. The church did have an effectively recognized ad hoc canon, but it lacked official sanctioning. Documents discovered in the twentieth century attest to the fact that by 140-150, the collection of writings accepted by Rome was virtually identical with our New Testament.

So the Catholic response to Marcion was this: (1) We accept the Old Testament because Christ fulfilled them and stamped them with his approval. (2) The divinely inspired books of this new age do not supersede the Old Testament but stand beside it. (3) The Gospel contains not one but four accounts, including the one that Marcion mangled. (4) The Apostle contains not just ten of Paul’s letters, but thirteen, and it also contains correspondence of some of the other apostles. (5) Special emphasis was placed on Luke’s second half of Christian history, the Book of Acts, which Marcion omitted from his canon. Its special place was now recognized: it bridged The Gospel to The Apostle. (It was at this time that the book became known as The Acts of the Apostles, although in some anti-Marcion literature it was dubbed The Acts of All the Apostles.

Another response to Marcion was to write prologues for each of the gospels in order to establish their legitimacy. The prologue to Matthew’s gospel was lost. Part of Mark’s prologue reads:
…Mark declared, who is called 'stump-fingered,' because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.

Luke’s prologue has a lengthy biography:
Luke was a native of Syrian Antioch, a physician by profession, a disciple of the apostles. Later he accompanied Paul until the latter's martyrdom, serving the Lord without distraction, for he had neither wife nor children. He died in Boeotia at the age of eighty-four, full of the Holy Spirit. So then, after two Gospels had already been written - Matthew's in Judea and Mark's in Italy - Luke wrote this Gospel in the region of Achaia, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At its outset, he indicated that other Gospels had been written before his on, but that the obligation lay upon him to set forth for the Gentile believers a complete account in the course of his narrative and to do so as accurately as possible. The object of this was that they might not be captivated on the one hand by a love for Jewish fables, nor on the other hand be deceived by heretical and vain imaginations and thus wander from the truth. So, right at the beginning, Luke has handed down to us the story of the birth of John [the Baptist], as a most essential [part of the Gospel story]; for John marks the beginning of the Gospel, since he was our Lord's forerunner and associate both in the preparation of the Gospel and in the administration of baptism and the fellowship of the Spirit. This ministry [of John's] was foretold by one of the Twelve Prophets [i.e. the minor prophets]. Later on, the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.

The anti-Marcion flavor of this prologue is evident when it is understood that included in the considerable mischief Marcion made with Luke’s gospel, he completely excised any reference to John the Baptist, since John the Baptist was a link between the new age and the Jewish past. Furthermore, the explicit reference to The Acts of the Apostles is a not very subtle reminder that Marcion rejected that work.

The most intriguing is John’s prologue:
The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John when he was still in the body, as Papias of Hierapolis, John’s dear disciple has related in his five exegetical books. He wrote down the gospel accurately at John’s dictation. But the heretic Marcion was rejected by John, after earning his disapproval for his contrary views.

There are several inaccuracies that jump out—certainly the apostle John was not a contemporary of Marcion.

Another anti-Marcion document was a list of books that represents the canon near the end of the second century. It was discovered by L. A. Muratori in 1740. The beginning is missing, and the first book mentioned is the gospel of Luke and it’s called the third, so it is reasonable to assume that it included Matthew and Mark as the first and second books.

I. ...those things at which he was present he placed thus.23 The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name24 in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself25 as one studious of right.26 Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began27 his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, "Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind.28 And hence, although different points29 are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit,30 which concern the Lord's nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent,-the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future. What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things31 so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, "What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written."32 For thus he professes himself to be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.

2. Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission33 of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city-Rome-to Spain.

3. As to the epistles34 of Paul, again, to those who will understand the matter, they indicate of themselves what they are, and from what place or with what object they were directed. He wrote first of all, and at considerable length, to the Corinthians, to check the schism of heresy; and then to the Galatians, to forbid circumcision; and then to the Romans on the rule of the Old Testament Scriptures, and also to show them that Christ is the first object35 in these;-which it is needful for us to discuss severally,36 as the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name, in this order: the first to the Corinthians, the second to the Ephesians, the third to the Philippians, the fourth to the Colossians, the fifth to the Galatians, the sixth to the Thessalonians, the seventh to the Romans. Moreover, though he writes twice to the Corinthians and Thessalonians for their correction, it is yet shown-i.e., by this sevenfold writing-that there is one Church spread abroad through the whole world. And John too, indeed, in the Apocalypse, although he writes only to seven churches, yet addresses all. He wrote, besides these, one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy, in simple personal affection and love indeed; but yet these are hallowed in the esteem of the Catholic Church, and in the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline. There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey.

4. The Epistle of Jude, indeed,37 and two belonging to the above-named John-or bearing the name of John-are reckoned among the Catholic epistles. And the book of Wisdom, written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church. The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Plus sat in the chair of the Church of Rome. And therefore it also ought to be read; but it cannot be made public38 in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets, as their number is complete, nor among the apostles to the end of time. Of the writings of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Miltiades, we receive nothing at all. Those are rejected too who wrote the new Book of Psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides and the founder of the Asian Cataphrygians.39

So from this we see what books are in the canon around A.D. 200. The four gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, Jude, two epistles of John (the second of which is possibly what we now consider the second and third.) Revelation, and a second Revelation due to Peter. This book is known and was read in some churches –its lurid treatment of the state of the damned is believed to underlie much medieval writing on the subject including Dante’s Inferno.

Some believe the epistles of Peter are omitted by error. Regardless, we have essentially a recognizable canon, with the notable absence of Hebrews and James.

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